This week’s reading is a second passage from the prophet Hosea who was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel. His ministry followed that of Amos, commencing around 750 BCE and continuing until just before the predicted fall of Samaria in 721 BCE. See last week’s comment for some brief background to Hosea.
In this week’s passage, the metaphor has shifted from Yahweh as the wronged husband of a straying wife to Yahweh as the parent of a child who has spurned parental love. The imagery is quite tender, with Yahweh recalling Israel as a young child, called out of Egypt in the Exodus. There is poignant sadness in verse 2, ‘the more I called them, the more they went from me,’ as the people continued to worship the Canaanite fertility god Ba’al. A sense of the anguish of this deep betrayal of a deeper love pervades the passage.
In v. 3 Yahweh continues his reflection, ‘yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms.’ Once again the people refused to acknowledge the Lord’s love: ‘they did not know that I healed them.’ Verse 4 continues the litany of God’s love: ‘I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.’ Like one who lifts an infant to their cheek, God ‘bent down to them and fed them.’ The language is tender, evoking a parent’s faithful care of an infant child.
Yet the next verse breaks off abruptly, as though Yahweh is all the more angry for reflecting on the love he has lavished on his people. Like a spurned parent, his anger kindles. He foretells the people’s return to captivity, with Assyria to be their king because they refused to return to the Lord. Violence and the sword prevail in their cities because of their waywardness. In v. 7 the plaintive refrain recurs, ‘my people are bent on turning away from me,’ with the possessive ‘my people’, a covenant term, serving to underscore the depth of relationship that has been abandoned. It also hearkens back to the name of Hosea and Gomer’s third child, which embodied the breaking of the covenant: ‘not my people’ (Hos 1:9).
In v. 8, the tone shifts abruptly again, as Yahweh returns to a tender view of Israel. ‘How can I give you up, Ephraim…my heart recoils within me [from the intended judgement]; my compassion grows warm and tender.’ God has changed God’s mind, turning from fierce anger, for ‘I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.’ So the deserved judgement is forestalled, overwhelmed by God’s overweening compassion.
In vv. 10 and 11, the metaphors are mixed. God roars like a great lion, which serves only as a call to bring God’s children from their exile. They come like trembling birds, and God promises to return them to their homes.
Throughout this passage, we sense the tempestuous moods of God, the deep tides of God’s compassion surging against the rock of a justly-deserved punishment for the people’s faithlessness. There is here no cheap grace, no easily won indulgent love. Rather we glimpse the pain of a parent’s heart, torn by the thoughtless straying of a wayward child, yet loving nonetheless. Here we glimpse that the hope for such a relationship and for the future of the child lies in the ‘turning’ within the heart of the parent rather than in any change within the child. Here we are shown the Holy One who is beyond our ways, whose steadfast love outlasts all betrayal.
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